Mid-Career Burnout Is Real
Bob stared at his iced tea and grilled salmon salad. A senior partner at a regional investment bank, he earns a very substantial income. He had asked me to lunch “just to catch up,” but I suspected he harbored a more urgent agenda. And here it was.
“Paul, I still have 15 years left until retirement,” he shared solemnly. “I work most weekends, and every morning, I have to drag myself to the office. What am I going to do?”
Since I started my podcast about the connection between money, work, and meaning, I’ve received many emails from people like Bob: middle-aged and successful on paper, but grappling to maintain a connection to the sterling career that was once the professional cornerstone of a perfect life.
Let’s be frank: The melancholy of the affluent corporate types doesn’t rank near the top of the world’s most pressing problems. But for the employee who is at an age when professional change is difficult, the malaise that stems from exhaustion and a lack of purpose can saturate every corner of their existence. Common work-life balance advice doesn’t cut it here. No conversation with a spouse, walk around the block, or fishing trip with their kid — if there’s even time for such extravagance — will answer the existential question, “What the fuck am I doing with my life?”
I recently spoke with Yale law professor Daniel Markovits, author of The Meritocracy Trap, in which he describes the problem of mid-career burnout. Centuries ago, aristocrats owned assets like coal mines or railroads that generated income while the idle proprietors slept. In contrast, today’s elite — well-paid doctors, lawyers, consultants, investment bankers, and the like — earn money only when they show up to do the job. While knowledge is the underlying asset, time is their currency.
Earlier in their careers, people often have more stamina for onerous or even unhealthy demands on their time. But as they age, the zero-sum trade-off between work and personal relationships imposes an increasingly burdensome tax on their soul. Worse yet, the higher they ascend on the ladder, the more of their time is required. As a lawyer friend of mine summarized: “It’s a pie-eating contest. And the reward is more pie.”
Consider the data: More than half of the top 1% of earning households include one person who works more than 50 hours per week. Men in that same top percentile work 50% longer hours than the men in the bottom half of earners. So while those who really need the income don’t get the opportunity to work, elites keep hours that practically eliminate adequate amounts of sleep, exercise, or time with spouses and children.
This is where a lot of the brightest, hardest-working people find themselves and where I encountered my pal Bob and his challenging question. What indeed does a 45-plus-year-old professional do when he finds himself over the barrel of their own success?
The knee-jerk response would be, “Why don’t you just quit?” For those who are fortunate enough to have that as a viable financial option, freedom is on the table. But even they can feel trapped. Despite years of juicy bonuses, the expenses of many professionals have grown in lockstep with their rise up the corporate ladder. They treat their generous paychecks like payouts from a slow-motion lottery, locking themselves into lake houses, private schools, and country club memberships that now represent their economic baseline. While this situation might not deserve much empathy, it is an undeniable barrier to a prudent, near-term exit.
Okay, then why not just cut back one’s hours and earn a little bit less? This is a great idea in theory, but difficult in practice. Modern professional services firms do not easily accommodate part-time or even “reasonable” workloads. Markovits attributes the failure to do so to a collective practice of using income to “keep score.” Whatever the reason, you’re never going to hear about a company called Joe’s Pretty Good Investment Bank: home of the 40-hour workweek.
After giving it some thought, here are a few things I would recommend to Bob and others who are grappling with this issue:
First, honor the gravity of the situation by hiring a therapist or a professional coach with whom you can explore potential solutions. You should be talking about your problem, but not with me or on social media, or even to your partner if you find yourself complaining ad nauseam.
Second, though your problem feels urgent, summon patience. A thoughtful change will take time — years, perhaps — to reduce burn rate, reposition yourself professionally, or find a more hospitable work home. Lawyers can secure in-house positions on the client-side. Financial and consulting types can explore CFO, controller, or strategy positions. Not that these jobs are cakewalks, but they generally come with a more manageable lifestyle and a direct connection to an ongoing concern.
Lastly, check your personal strength. When you’re stressed at work, you need to have your best personal game going. Tap the brakes on the booze. Carve out time to get to the gym. And check where you’re spending your energy at work. If a political battle presents itself, ask yourself whether the time and focus required to engage it will enrich or deplete you.
Along these lines, be careful not to blow yourself up. Every day may feel like a crisis, but it’s not. You’re in a good place. Recall that the job you have today is a gig you once dreamed of. You looked up to the person who held your current position and today there are dozens of younger people who hold you in admiration. (Note: Don’t sleep with them.)
If you’re one of these younger professionals, be aware that now is the time to prepare yourself for mid-career burnout. Manage your lifestyle so that you always have “walk-away money” and keep an eye out for the kind of “niche” jobs that provide a good income and self-determination, but don’t require you to sell your soul.
It might feel like a long way off, but before you know it, you may find yourself asking a friend for help over iced tea and salmon salad.